The ACC Tournament kicks off its year-in-exile tomorrow in Atlanta, with a pretty unimpressive slate of games. That's the downside of the bottom half of the conference being as bad as it is this year – watching them fight for table scraps doesn't seem too appealing. There's only two games of interest, really. Maryland-Wake, because of its obvious implications for who UNC plays Sunday, and Clemson-VT, which actually looks to be a good game.
Before I get into that, however, let's take a look at the conference-only tempo-free stats for the season. First the offense:
How bad has the ACC offense been this season? Last year, outside of Wake Forest's abysmal 0.88 points per possession, the next worst team (Virginia) averaged 0.97. This year there's a veritable platoon of teams down there. Of note is Wake Forest, who stumbled into a nine seed despite barely improving on last year's offense. Of the Demon Deacons four conference wins, three came at home and all were against other 4-12 teams. No margin of loss was less than eight points, and although Wake has definitely improved over their last five games, they shouldn't be able to handle the Terps.
But let's consider the tougher offenses of the ACC. Duke is leading all comers here, by virtue of some excellent effective field goal shooting. And the Tar Heels steamrolled them last weekend, which should give us all some hope. The only team who shoots better than the Blue Devils is Florida State; yet the Seminoles are fifth in offensive efficiency, at 1.02 points per possession. At midseason, that number was 1.06; since then their shooting has slipped a bit and their turnovers have gotten a lot worse. Florida State coughs up the ball more than any other team in the conference, and it's the root of their offensive woes. Meanwhile Miami, who have lost four of their last seven, and State, loser of four of their last six, have both put together pretty good offenses. With tournament berths on the line, you'd think they'd come through Thursday relatively well.
Defense, on the other hand, explains how most of the top-four seeds got the day off on Thursday. Duke's poor defense aside, all the top ACC teams excel at locking down their opponents. We're all familiar with Leonard Hamilton's teams by this point; they've allowed under a point per possession the past four seasons, and haven't finished lower than third in the conference in that time. But it's Virginia that has really improved. Last season they allowed 1.01 points per possession, middle of the pack for the conference. That they've stepped up their game that much, even without Assane Sene, makes them dangerous. But they don't match up particularly well with either North Carolina or North Carolina State, their likely first two opponents. Couple that with a Maryland-level offense, and the Cavaliers could go home early.
Speaking of the Terps, their defense is pretty bad, isn't it? I mean, it's never looked particularly strong, but I wouldn't have thought it was Georgia Tech or Wake Forest bad. It's not like they don't defend the shot well, and their rebounding isn't great, but they manage. No, the Terps just don't force turnovers, and they foul a lot. That can bite you in a single-elimination format, especially if your opponent relies on the three a lot. Like, say this:
Yeah, Boston College shoots a lot of threes. Meanwhile, no one else on the entire half of UNC's bracket shoots the three at all. So barring a Boston College miracle run, the Heels won't face anyone capable of shooting over them until the finals. On the other side of things, I'd expect Thursday to be the higher seeds winning, Friday there being a decent chance of upsets by Miami or N.C. State, and Saturday UNC advancing easily, while Duke should have a little difficulty. And then UNC cutting down the nets.
Now this may be overconfidence after the Duke game. Sure, the Heels have a seven game winning streak, and are one shot away from that streak being thirteen. But they haven't always looked the strongest during that stretch. Maybe I'm just nervous about predicting too much success for this team; but I also can't see anyone else from this conference winning in Atlanta.